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New math curriculum at Greenfield-Central poses challenges

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Figuring it out: Kevin Gardner watches as his daughter, Nora, 8, works on a math problem Thursday in the computer lab at J.B. Stephens Elementary. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Figuring it out: Kevin Gardner watches as his daughter, Nora, 8, works on a math problem Thursday in the computer lab at J.B. Stephens Elementary. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — Lattice multiplication? Partial sums addition?

It’s all Greek to parents who learned to solve math problems by traditional means.

But these seemingly foreign concepts are laying the mathematics foundation for hundreds of Greenfield-Central students.

Called Everyday Mathematics, the likes of lattice multiplication and partial sums addition are part of a pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade curriculum developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project and adopted by the Greenfield-Central school corporation in 2010.

G-C is the only corporation in the county that utilizes the curriculum as its primary means of teaching math.

While many educators tout Everyday Mathematics’ techniques as the best way to reach students, the curriculum is controversial in part because of its sharp deviation from traditional methods. This can frustrate parents accustomed to helping their children with homework.

Some of the techniques break down difficult problems into many small, but simple, steps. To the untrained eye, having so many steps could appear unnecessary, but educators say Everyday Mathematics is reaching students like never before.

“I feel like they get it,” said Kara Martinez, a second-grade teacher at J.B. Stephens Elementary School. “They understand concepts better, and they understand concepts deeper.”

Everyday Mathematics recognizes that parents might need some catching up in order to help their children, she added.

“What I love about the homework is there’s … a note that says, ‘This is what your child learned and how we taught it,’” she said. “With every chapter, a whole explanation of what we’re going to be learning and all of the answers … goes home. It’s a really good parent-connector.”

Thursday night, J.B. Stephens held its annual “Family Math Night,” an evening of interactive games and family activities aimed at helping acquaint parents with the curriculum their children are using on a daily basis.

Among the attendees were Eric and Brittany Morrow and their daughter, Christina, a second-grader.

Brittany Morrow said she remembers when her daughter, who transferred to J.B. Stephens this year from another school system, brought home her Everyday Math workbook for the first time. A supplemental assignment – one directed at parents – was to glance through the workbook and pick out three positive things about the curriculum.

Flipping through the pages, Morrow had trouble with the task.

“I was like, ‘Well, I like the pictures that they gave in the examples,’” she said. “But it was difficult to find three things.”

Everyday Mathematics operates as a spiral, teachers say. In essence, a concept is revisited throughout several units prior to the unit that focuses entirely on that particular concept. As a result, students are already somewhat familiar with a lesson before it is discussed, in depth.

Additionally, students are given some flexibility on finding the best problem-solving method for them.

“Instead of force-feeding one way, you teach a bunch of different ways,” said Jamie Jacquemin, a third-grade teacher at J.B. Stephens.

Few of those ways, however, will look familiar to anyone who learned traditional algorithms for solving math problems.

“It’s almost like homework for parents,” Eric Morrow said of helping his daughter learn unfamiliar methods. “That’s honestly what it’s like.”

Teachers say parents aren’t alone. They, too, had to re-learn basic math methods before imparting them to their students.

“The first year was tough because we didn’t know how it was set up,” Martinez said. “It was a lot different than what we used to teach.”

While many things can affect standardized test scores, J.B. Stephens Principal Candy Short points to Everyday Math as one of the driving forces behind improved math scores on the ISTEP for G-C students.

In 2009, the year before the corporation adopted the curriculum, 73 percent of Greenfield-Central third-graders passed the math portion of the ISTEP test. Last year, that number jumped to 88 percent.

Kevin Gardner attended J.B. Stephens’ Family Math Night Thursday and said he is grateful math comes easily to his daughter, Nora, 8.

Gardner and his wife, a teacher in Knightstown, are on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to their opinions on Everyday Math. Gardner said he finds merit in the new methods – some of which he admits his daughter has had to teach him – while his wife is opposed to the curriculum, which is also used in her school corporation.

“I can see how kids can understand,” he said.

That doesn’t mean parents don’t occasionally revert to their comfort zones when helping their kids with homework, Jacquemin said.

“They don’t necessarily understand the method, so it becomes a frustration at home, and they end up teaching them the old method at home,” she said. “I think the resistance comes from frustration with homework.”

But traditional methods have not been entirely abandoned; now, they’re just one of many methods, Bratton pointed out. And when it comes to test time, students often have a choice of which method they use to solve the problems.

Having struggled with math as a child, Martinez said she is passionate about finding a way to help every child learn and believes Everyday Mathematics is the key.

“I was not a strong math student myself, and so I was desperate to help kids really get it,” she said. “I didn’t want them turning in tear-soaked papers like I did.”

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